Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I was sitting the faculty lounge having lunch. Several others around me started comparing thoughts on hair style and care. My own powers of observation are limited, so that I tend not to notice that Lois has had a haircut unless I was forewarned. But I realized quickly enough as I listened that I am as vain as anyone else about appearance.

I observed that I used to have red hair. Some were sceptical, but the picture of Lois and me when we first were engaged shows the truth.

Their scepticism is easy to understand. Here we are today.

Lois tells me that white hair is good, and I am willing to believe her. I notice the thinning, the weathering, the truth that time passes whatever we feel like inside. When we left Pennsylvania to go back to school, after about nine years of marriage, we had become a small family.

Lois, Vaughn, and I -- ready to leave Speedwell heights for Wilmore. I think I was less concerned with appearance then. A kind of carelessness that went with being 36. Now I'm not so sure. I know that I am older, and I notice.

Speedwell had been good for us. I preached 45 to 50 Sundays a year. The picture below comes from my ordination service, with John Byers sitting behind me. Time passes, and John himself is gone now.

One of the things that I notice most now is my aversion to the sun. I can't stay long in the sun under any conditions. When we last travelled abroad, I remember trying to avoid the sun often. First picture, making sure that I'm under the roof of the bicycle taxis in London.

Then hiding under a blanket while an electrician works on our wonder car in the Kalahari desert.

In a way the last picture is a metaphor for appearances. Sometimes I don't want to be seen, not just by the sun. As I get older, I become aware of both sides: wanting to be noticed, and wanting to hide away. Appearances. Alternately showing off and hiding.
The chance conversation about hairstyles and colours is an excuse to remember what we look like. The shell of physicality that encloses our selves (these "ensouled bodies") matters more than we might think. In the end, the shell crumbles and the self remains, so that the shell of John in the picture above lies now in a grave. John himself is stronger than ever; but appearances matter. He has a new body (shell), Paul tells us.
It's good to remember what we have had and been; the memories are ourselves anyway.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


This afternoon I went to a Russian sauna, or banya. One of my colleagues has extensive experience in Russia and has taken advantage of Manitoba's similarity to the Russian winter to build himself a banya in his backyard.

He found a supply of cedarwood and built a shed with a small outer room. I entered the outer room and stripped off my clothes, hanging them on a hook. Glasses came off immediately: too much steam to see with them on anyway. A swimsuit (too much of a new comer to this sort of thing to consider au naturel), and I was ready to go further in and much hotter. My friend only makes the banya about 70 Celsius (about 160 Fahrenheit). We're not setting any records, but it feels warm in the early Manitoba winter.

Soon sweat drips from my face and body and every pore. I can't see well without my glasses in any case, and with sweat flowing freely down my face I spend most of the time with my hands wiping my eyes. Three other men are there. They all sit on the top seat (we have three levels in the small sauna). John pours water into a container on the woodstove, and steam fills the air.

After about 10 minutes one of the others leads the way out; he's the closest to a newcomer besides me. I sit on the bottom seat, where the heat is lowest. And I follow him out without hesitation. The four of us cool off outside. The snow just covers the ground, so no rolling around in the snow today. The two who are most experienced take cold water from a tap and pour it over themselves. I just cool off, grateful to be able to see again.

Then back inside. John adds oil with some peppermint to the water this time, and scent mingled with steam fills the air. Soon I am holding my hands over my eyes again. Another 10 minutes and my first banya of the year is over. I cool off outside, put my clothes back on, and head for home.

It's a good experience. Physically it helps to bring out anything inside the body that needs to be purged. The four of us found that the steam and heat and cold also greases conversation and friendship. Perhaps holding one's hands over one's eyes helps men to speak more easily ....

The banya over, I walked back to the main campus building with one of the others. The two stalwarts remained in the banya for another half hour. I fingered my glasses, waiting for the frames to shrink enough for my to reinsert the right lens. A hot metal frame combined with a cool plastic-glass lens makes for loss of lens: unanticipated consequences of the banya. Next time I'll leave my glasses outside the hut entirely.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Rocha

I've been reading a book that brings together two of my passions, the story of the founding of A Rocha in Portugal. Peter and Miranda Harris were working in an English pastorate (curacy, if you prefer) when God called them to begin a bird-watching conservancy, specifically as a Christian outreach in Portugal. Under Bright Wings is the story of how they began the venture now known as the A Rocha Christian Field Study Centre and Bird Observatory.

A Rocha means Rock -- on this rock I will build my church. We have built often enough on dubious foundations, some thought that we might gain some credit for growing the church. And we have seen efforts struggle and fail even when they seemed to be succeeding. The story Peter Harris tells does not include great numbers of people in the Algarve (where they lived) becoming Christian. It does, however, show that genuine Christian faith came to be possible for people who thought that the church was quite irrelevant to the challenges of living in Europe today.

I think of other ventures, such as the retreat centre at Taize in France. I am in more sympathy with the theology of A Rocha, which is (to my mind) evangelical; while the theology of Taize is less clear. But both incorporate Scripture and prayer at the centre of everything they do. A deep abiding desire to know God and be in close communion with God endures in the human spirit, even when our culture, indeed so much of the world, tries so hard to get rid of God completely.

When I think of my two passions: knowing God and treating God's creation with respect and care (what some call "environmentalism"): it is clear to me that treating the earth rightly (conservation) is a form of worship. Secularists who want to save the earth mean well (as they might say of me also!), but why should I bother if we can't succeed and if there's nothing after this life anyway. But caring for creation, expressing my love and obedience for the Creator who has given us this incredible gift we call "earth"; that's another matter altogether.

I don't need to pursue environmental causes with a deep need to succeed, and thus to despair of doing anything when human greed destroys another part of nature (or, more accurately, Creation). Instead, I can do what is right (from using less fossil fuel to recycling to keeping the yard neat and enjoying Lois' garden because in all of this I am celebrating the goodness of the Creator who gave us this wonderful gift we call "earth".

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Life Continues

The American Presidential Election is over (except where they're doing recounts, such as the Minnesota senate race). Obama won, for which I am grateful. I wanted change, which is his watchword. I want a government and country that is more willing to be part of the whole world and less ready to invade other countries. I want a country in which it's okay to disagree with each other, without having one's patriotism questioned. Obama has promised such a country, although we're the ones who will have to make it work.

When it comes to specific policies, I tend to be fairly conservative -- a registered democrat who can vote republican without a lot of difficulty. But I am also a part of the world. I have lived in too many different countries to buy into the neo-con vision of America as the world's conscience and policeman and governor.

So I'm glad; but I know that the real disagreements I have with Obama (for example, taking the right away from the States to legislate on abortion) will remain. Now that the electoral message has been sent: don't invade other countries; use our military in self-defense: I can consider republican candidates again. I know that many others who voted for Obama had other issues in mind, from the economy to a dislike of conservatives in general. Those issues aren't mine. I am conservative, and I can't say as I dislike liberals. Many good people are some of each. And the economy stems from problems far deeper than republican policies, not least the greed that is endemic to American society. Overspending on a war we did not need to fight has lessened our ability to deal with the economic crisis, and that war was my single most important issue this time around.

The sun came up today. God orders the stars and planets in their courses, and God brought another day, regardless of who we voted for. The stock market fell, and the economy continues its antics. Our car needed repairing, and the plumber fixed a problem with the water softener. Our dog looks out the window and welcomes us home ecstatically, and then sleeps beside me as I type. He's old enough (11 and 1/2) to know that companionship and love are more important even than elections. Meanwhile, the election is over and Obama won. Some of my friends think that's a bad thing, but God reigns anyway. I think we all won this time, but I know that the real truth is that God reigns and the sun came up this morning.

Postscript: We have a new bed, higher than our old mattress (the same one we had when we got married over 31 years ago!). We've sprayed for spiders. So finally I am sleeping better and back in my own bed. I don't know yet if the saga is over, or if something else is going on. i still have some unexplained bumps on my head -- not the Slagenweit kind, but swellings that come and go. They may be the after effects of three weeks of spider bites, or something else. Who knows? But the sun came up this morning, after a good night's sleep in my own bed.